Garvan Walshe was National and International Security Policy Adviser for the Conservative Party until 2008. He is now studying for a PhD at the University of Manchester, and is managing partner at The Research Department, a consultancy.
“dangerous world” warning shows the folly of defence
David Cameron runs his government like
a lighthouse. Today’s issue receives the full glare of prime ministerial focus.
Yesterday’s and tomorrow’s lie ignored in darkness. So we had, in response to a
serious but not unprecedented hostage crisis in Algeria, a call to meet the
“generational challenge” of Islamist extremism. Just 24 hours later, Philip
Hammond, like a single brave officer ordered to hold an indefensible salient,
announces the Army is to be cut by 5,000 men.
On taking office, the Coalition imagined
itself as the export division of UK Plc. The foreign office was refocused on
trade promotion. Embassies peripheral to this slated for closure. The
“Strategic Defence and Security Review” became an exercise in cutbacks. Of the
international departments, only DfID expanded. Readers of this blog may not be
DfID’s firmest friends, but it is possible to imagine a long term economic as
well as political and moral justification: countries that escape the poverty
trap will contribute more to global economic growth and be larger markets to
which we can export. It was as though Britain had finally reconciled itself to
becoming the nation of shopkeepers Napoleon wished it had been.
What’s wrong, you may ask, with this?
Labour left us with a vast economic mess. Don’t we owe it to the British people
to use all elements of national power to return to economic growth? Wasn’t
adventurism in foreign policy, if not entirely wrong, at best another boom time
luxury we can’t afford?
Not so fast. Just as a shopkeeper
depends on police to apprehend shoplifters, courts to enforce contracts with
customers and suppliers, and laws to uphold trading standards, economic growth
is fastest when security and the rule of law can be relied upon. Security may
appear costly, but insecurity is more expensive still. When a grocer’s daughter
led the country though acute economic turmoil, she didn’t stint on the national
Then it seemed relatively simple. The
forces needed to contribute to the west’s containment of the Soviet Union could
be dispatched to deal with the Argentine junta. It has become commonplace to
see major, “industrial” interstate war receding, but remember at the Senkaku
islands: it may not have receded enough. Another kind of mission is needed just
Means, Motive and Opportunity
The Prime Minister was right to warn of
the ungoverned spaces in which extremists and terrorists can organise, correct to
highlight the importance of Islamist ideology in motivating them, and wise to
understand that security measures need to be accompanied by a process to
establish democracy and the rule of law.
Extremists and terrorists have, of
course, been around for ever. Even
transnational ideologies are hardly new (there were quite a few Socialist
Internationals). Two things are different now. The ungoverned spaces are more
numerous and less remote than they used to be; and the means of destruction
available to small groups of men reach much farther than they once did.
We made a mistake in imagining that
many dictatorships were somehow “legitimate” – that their authoritarian rule possessed
at least the stabilising tacit consent of the people subjected to it. Often,
they were brittle: their carapace of securocrats disguised a hodgepodge of
deals between great families and their retainers. When the security system
collapses, those left unprotected have to manage as best they can; those left
unoppressed can at last seize the day.
Mali was perhaps an extreme example.
Its government had resembled that of Ethelred the Unready, allowed to remain in
power in exchange for refraining from asserting their writ over the country’s
north. As I write French troops advance from town to town. This will be the
easy bit. We can expect the rebels to settle in for a long guerilla war.
It’s yet another counterinsurgency and
stabilisation mission. Our militaries, at least in principle, know what these
involve, but Western governments shrink from providing them the capability.
Traditional security is only ever a small part of the job. Constructing and
reforming institutions is most of it. Though dangerous, it’s the work of
diplomats, administrators and police more than soldiers. Aid organisations can
be persuaded to help with more of this work than they will always admit, but in
the end it is being done in the interest of national security, and goes against
the apolitical culture of their industry.
The world is indeed more dangerous than
it was imagined during the last Strategic Defence and Security Review.
Afghanistan and Iraq (after the surge) aren’t aberrations. Long, expeditionary missions
like it will be part of Western security policy for the foreseeable future. We
had better prepare, in the next spending round, to take part in them. As an
earlier international extremist said of war, we may not
be interested in ungoverned spaces, but they are interested in us.